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Holy profit! Films fueling comic sales

(ran South, West, Beach, Seminole editions)

Spider-Man. The Hulk. X-Men. LXG.

Local comic book stores are happy to see comic-based superhero movies taking over the box office.

That's because the films and their extravagant marketing campaigns sometimes mean extra bucks for stores struggling to attract new and younger buyers.

"We are such a hard business to advertise," said Neil Johnson, owner of Emerald City, with stores in Seminole and Clearwater. "Out of 100 people, there might be two that care about what we have to sell. A movie? That's the best demographic possible. Anybody who sees that movie cares about what I have."

The numbers prove it. After every comic-based movie release, there is a two- to three-month bump in sales of the affiliated comic books, Johnson said. While it does not begin to compare to comic sales 10 or 20 years ago, the recent movie-driven trend is helpful, Johnson said.

At least 10 comic-based movies have hit theaters since 2001. This year alone, audiences have given millions to Marvel, the folks behind Hulk, Daredevil and X2: X-men United. Long after the screens go dark, some of these newly enthralled fans subsidize their fantasies at their local comic book store.

Similarly, many movies that came from scripts or books are turned into comic books, expanding the original story. Single comics and comic anthologies (sometimes called graphic novels) based on Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings are popular, as are comic books based on cartoons like Dragonball Z.

Movie madness is part of the reason why Emerald City's two stores have seen their best quarter ever, said Johnson, the owner. In June alone, Johnson sold 5,000 new comic books, 1,000 back issues and 500 graphic novels or trade paperback books. Averaging around $3 a book, with graphic novels averaging around $10, that's about $23,000 _ and that doesn't include the occasional sale of a book worth $1,000.

Still, 95 percent of these buyers are adult men. But the movies are doing their part to bring in more women and younger buyers, some store owners say.

"I think last year we saw more of a positive draw from the movies with Spider-Man and Star Wars," said Pat Potter, owner of Beyond Books/Comic World in Largo. "My customers come in raving. It's a great summer for these movies."

But all is not golden. Sales may be creeping up, but not fast enough, store owners say. Many newcomers aren't coming back.

"They don't always stay with you," said Scott Morse, manager of Wonder Water in Tampa. (Wonder Water also has locations in St. Petersburg and Clearwater.) "It's more flash in the pan than long-term. Like the Incredible Hulk came out and due to the combo of the movie and speculation, it raised the price on comics already out. New people come in looking for Hulk comics. But it generally does not last."

The history of comic world economics is long enough to fill a book, but it has a lot to do with the fact that comics are on average a $2.25, expendable luxury item only found at specialty stores.

Problems also lie with collectors buying comics solely for profit and not for entertainment, making it hard for children to compete, some say.

There are around 10,000 comic book stores in the nation. Most of them supplement their shelves with trading cards, board games and role-playing game devices in order to stay afloat. Some stores say that trading games like YuGiOh and Pokemon are often the only reason kids come into their stores.

"These movies have a fractional effect," said Ian Feller, director of ancillary publishing at CrossGen Comics in Oldsmar. "They can't go into a 7-Eleven and find Spidey anymore."

Part of the problem is literacy, said Barbara Kesel, CrossGen's vice president of writing development.

"Thank God for Harry Potter," Kesel said. "Really though, there is so much noise competing for their attention that no one can hear."

The kid-friendly movies and new versions of the age-old comic titles are helping to reverse this trend, experts say.

Marvel Comics, for example, in recent years created their Ultimate Spider-Man series which starts at the beginning of the story, with Peter Parker as a high school student. But instead of it being 1962, it's 2003 and Peter is still a geek, but he's into building Web sites instead of taking pictures. Mary Jane is still pretty, but her hair is shorter and she wears tight blue jeans.

It's easier for new fans to digest the first 43 books in the Ultimate Spidey line than for them to pick up at the 400th issue of one of at least four different and existing Spidey titles and miniseries with new weekly installments.

Meanwhile, the original Spider-Man titles continue for the hard-core fans who have been reading for the past 20 years.

Marvel's sensitivity to that problem and the fallout from the movie together is making the Ultimate Spider-Man series the most popular comic in the United States.

Of course, store owners pray that the next movie is good. If it is, Wonder Water's Clearwater store will barely keep its movie comics on the shelf.

"At one time we tried to do a special wall for books to movies," said Ken Wilson, a Wonder Water manager. "That kept selling out."

Kids like Patrick Ward, 13, of St. Petersburg, are the fraction of a percent of young people who are into the now mostly adult world of comics.

Patrick got hyped over Spider-Man. He films his own Spider-Man home movies starring himself and he collects the comic book. It's an $11-a-week habit.

Peter Parker is an inspiration, Patrick said.

"I can relate to him," said Patrick, while cradling his bagged copy of Ultimate Spider-Man No. 43 from Emerald City. "He's most like a normal person. He's a geek. He makes mistakes."

Stores like Emerald City will eventually live or die by the choices of kids like Patrick because unlike most of his friends, Patrick knows movies like Daredevil and Blade started with comic book characters.

"I had to show them the comic before they believed me," Patrick lamented with a frown.

Then the boy smiled while remembering seeing Spider-Man for the first time on the big screen last summer before coming to the comic store.

"It made me feel better," Patrick said. "I went into that theater and I thought, "At least I'm not alone.' "

_ Adrienne Samuels can be reached at 445-4157 or samuelssptimes.com.

Comics on screen

Here is a short list of comic book-based movies that have hit the theaters. Some of them have won prestigious awards. Others might surprise you: The Road to Perdition, The Mask, Blade, Ghost World, Daredevil, Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, X-Men, Time Cop, Bulletproof Monk, From Hell, The Crow, Hellboy, Men In Black, Judge Dredd, Spawn, Akira, The Rocketeer.

Here is a list of comic-based movies already in the pipeline for 2003 and beyond: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Punisher, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man 2, Superman, Hellblazer.

Crossgen Comics artists Andy Smith of Tarpon Springs and Mike Atiyeh of Oldsmar peruse the new selection of comic books at the Emerald City comic book store in Clearwater. It's not unusual for the artists to spend $1,000 each week at the store.

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